AOL.com's Preseason NBA Power Rankings: 6. Chicago Bulls
Next week, regular season NBA basketball will be played. It's been a long offseason filled with twists nobody will ever forget, but the games that really matter are almost upon us. To pass the time, we've been bringing you extensive team-by-team breakdowns leading up to opening night.
Friday, we detailed our choice for the Oklahoma City Thunder at No. 7. Up today is a team that just can't seem to take control of the Eastern Conference, despite a deep roster with more than one star-level talent.
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After five seasons of posting a .647 winning percentage -- making the playoffs every season despite constant injury troubles -- it didn't seem at all fair when the Chicago Bulls handed coach Tom Thibodeau the door after a 50-win season in 2014-15. The Bulls had been famous for maximizing their talent and Thibodeau is widely recognized as one of the best coaches around the league.
But maybe, for this Bulls team, it was for the best.
While Thibs' prowess as a defensive preacher is indisputable -- the Bulls ranked top-six in defensive efficiency in every year of his tenure until last season, when they were 11th -- his flaws are also glaring. The coach is notorious for running his players into the ground -- for example, Jimmy Butler's 38.7 minutes per game in back-to-back seasons and 34-year-old Pau Gasol's team-high 2,681 minutes in 2014-15. He's also extremely hesitant to distribute playing time to younger players and before last season, Chicago's offense ranked 20th, 18th, 29th and 30th in his first four years as coach. Injuries to Derrick Rose certainly derailed the offensive plans, but finishing consistently near or in the bottom third is problematic and indicative of lack of scheme.
Fred Hoiberg is the new man in charge, and by the looks of things in the early going, the 43-year-old rookie NBA coach seems to be the anti-Thibs in at least one way.
Take preseason numbers for what they're worth, but thus far -- without Derrick Rose -- the Bulls have ranked sixth in offensive efficiency, according to RealGM. In the 2012 preseason without Rose, Chicago's offense ranked 25th.
Aside from Rose's health -- the point guard should be back early in the season, if not by opening night -- Jimmy Butler could be Chicago's most important cog in competing for a trip to the Finals. In a breakout 2014-15 campaign, Butler averaged 20 points, six boards and three assists while contributing his trademark ballhawking defense. Now with a new, max contract, Butler will not only need to continue his All-Star level production, but do so while cooperating with Rose's presence in the backcourt.
Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol will return to the starting frontcourt again for 2015-16. Nikola Mirotic will likely improve off his impressive rookie campaign, but Hoiberg would be wise to pair Gasol or Mirotic with Taj Gibson in lineups for defensive purposes.
Offensively, it's smart to expect Hoiberg to add in much more three-point shooting to a team that has the personnel for it. Doug McDermott, who hardly got a shot under Thibodeau in his rookie year, will likely be a large part of it, as will Butler, Mirotic and Mike Dunleavy. At Iowa State, Hoiberg's offenses were supremely efficient by limiting mid-range attempts as much as possible and funneling most shots to beyond the arc or within 10 feet of the rim.
Of course, by the end of the year, the Bulls' fate will come down to Rose's health. If he can weather most of a full season without missing time, Chicago should have a date set up with the Cleveland Cavaliers for a trip to the NBA Finals. If not, this year's results will likely be more of the same for Chicago.
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